One COVID-19 lockdown for the rich, another for the poor

Jeff Rudin*

June 7, 2020

John Berger, the British art critic and novelist, published his celebrated book, “Ways of Seeing, in 1972. The book explored the different ways that people see and interpret the same visual information. Berger’s focus was narrowly on art. Much more generally, the science of perception has made great strides in showing how each person’s experience of the world at large shapes what they see and, hence, what they understand of both themselves and the societal reality in which they find themselves. This same process leads to the formation of groups. People exposed to similar experiences typically end up having similar understandings of themselves etc. What is most often lost in these perceptual processes are that the generalisations are made from what is a highly individualised, though narrowly shared, construction. The outcome is that the singularities of their nonetheless shared views of themselves and the world are mostly not recognised. In this way, their particular way becomes the only way. Parochialism is a recognised consequence of these generalisations.

Inequality has a special place in the coronavirus gallery, as will be seen. Although in plain sight, these longstanding inequalities have invariably been noticed only in shadows. How, if at all, could this distorted perception – this unrecognised, or inadequately recognised inequality – account for many of the questions now being highlighted by the uncompromisingly harsh glare of the coronavirus searchlight? Take, for instance, the global debate about whether lockdown is the appropriate response to coronavirus and, if it is, when, and how best to transition back to normality. The stark choice, leaving even scientists in disagreement, is about saving lives – because coronavirus is seen to threaten everyone equally – or saving the economy – because people, from CEOs to workers, are being hurt by an economy in unprecedented lockdown (while not forgetting that the lockdown also has its beneficiaries among the already super rich: as early as 14 April, the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, had added $24-billion to his total wealth of $138-billion, while the fortune of the world’s richest family, the Waltons, of retail giant Walmart, had grown 5% to R169-billion, and the founder of Zoom had doubled his wealth to $7.4-billion in a few weeks).

Some commentators have argued that it is not an either/or debate. They argue that there’s a sweet spot from which to exit lockdown, a middle ground between a hard lockdown and a hard exit. The challenge, for them, is to find this exact sweet spot. But could this whole debate be premised on distorted perceptions? Could it be that it’s not an either/or but a complex of both and neither?  A similar debate attracting huge public interest is whether – or when and how – schools should reopen.

Looking at the evidence – 95% of schools not having cleaned and disinfected their classrooms; 94% of them not having received hand sanitisers; 78% being without soap and water; 99% still waiting for the delivery of sufficient masks for learners; and 92% being without material for cleaning and disinfecting surfaces during the day – one  academic has concluded that the Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga is a coronavirus “denialist”.  How, he wonders, could the minister even contemplate opening schools when at one and the same time she argues that: “Interrupting education services has serious, long-term consequences for economies and societies such as increased inequality, poorer health outcomes, and reduced social cohesion” yet ignores the fact that, in all countries, schools are “a microcosm of society” and, consequently, South African schools already – long before coronavirus – reflect and reproduce inequality, unequal health outcomes and fractured social cohesion?

How is one to explain the minister’s evident schizophrenia?  President Cyril Ramaphosa provides a clue. It is to be found in the opening paragraph of his weekly address to the nation, of 20 April:  “Many countries around the world have imposed coronavirus lockdowns with a view to saving the lives of their citizens. We have done the same in our country, but our lockdown has revealed a very sad fault line in our society that reveals how grinding poverty, inequality and unemployment is tearing the fabric of our communities apart.” The president of South Africa is here telling us, in the same short sentence, that the lockdown, supposedly imposed to save the lives of all citizens, is bedevilled by the ”revelation” of inequality! Moments later he expands on the sadness of his revelation:  “There can be no greater injustice than a society where some live in comfort and plenty, while others struggle at the margins to survive with little or nothing at all.”

There is absolutely no reason to doubt his sincerity. Indeed, it is this very quality that obliges us to ask how he could have been unaware of the inequality that has made, and continues to make, South Africa a world beater. Africa is the continent long recognised globally for its inequality. Yet, the “revelation” of inequality made such an impression on our president that he repeated its discovery in the speech he gave on Africa Day, on 25 May, as the current president of the African Union:  “The virus has exposed the deep inequalities that continue to exist on our continent and across the world. It has shown how far we are from realising our developmental goals and our responsibilities to the citizens of our continent.”

Probably even more puzzling is that his belated discovery of poverty amid plenty has had little, if any, impact on his subsequent policies. And he is not alone in this inconsistency. Within a matter of days of the British and US lockdowns, the media was awash with the revelation that coronavirus, rather than the non-discriminatory killer it was presented as being, was in fact very unequally impacting on those already most exposed to the inequalities deeply embedded in both countries. Yet, like with President Ramaphosa, these discoveries are neither coherently nor substantively reflected in the substance of subsequent policies.

Attributing these glaring contradictions to monumental hypocrisy or the amoral cynicism of politicians would blind us to a greater complexity. For starters, very few people are consistently amoral. Furthermore, all governments imposing lockdown have enjoyed popular support, at least initially. This, alone, makes large-scale egregious maleficence highly unlikely.

“Ways of Seeing” offers a much more benign and plausible explanation of why “we” and “us” are so central to the coronavirus-speak of politicians.  One of the 20th century’s greatest pianists, Arthur Rubenstein, the Russian-born son of a Russian businessman, when asked about the Russian Revolution, answered how terrible it was. The horror for him was because: “We all lost everything.” The “we”, in his spontaneous answer, referred only to the immediate targets of that revolution: the aristocratic elite along with the small class of business owners. Rubenstein had unknowingly generalised from his own family experience to a universal “WE”. Similarly, a statesman, lawyer, philosopher and poet is said to have said: “Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.” The poet was Marcus Tullius Cicero (3 January 106 BC – 7 December 43 BC), who lived at a time when books, in the Rome of his age, were even fewer than the number of people who could read. Yet, this didn’t prevent him from attributing book-writing to “everyone”!

These are Ways of Seeing in practice: the spontaneous (and very old) human characteristic of projecting their own experiences, thoughts, behaviours and values on to everyone. In this way, a very particular “I” becomes “We”’ and “We” becomes “Everyone”, including whole societies and epochs.  The movement from “I” to “We” to “Everyone” happens unknowingly, unconsciously. This means that lockdown, as the immediate response to coronavirus, was most probably a genuine concern about everyone, drawn, however, from a “we” that excluded most people. For practical purposes, limiting ourselves just to Britain, the US and South Africa, most people do not enjoy a level of healthcare which makes any sense of “flattening the curve”. Buying time to prepare those services for when the pandemic overwhelmed hospitals was premised on equal access to all who required the coronavirus-determined totality of medical services, rather than the reality of profoundly unequal access to all those services.

Notwithstanding the differences between the three countries, South Africa’s bed position is illustrative. With scientists now predicting that the country will reach 30,000 diagnosed Covid-19 cases by the end of May, it is all too evident that South Africa’s roughly 3,300 hospital beds, in intensive care units (ICUs) in the public and private sector combined, are not going to be nearly enough. By 21 May, it was already being reported of Groote Schuur, one of Cape Town’s largest public hospitals, that it couldn’t cope with the number of coronavirus patients doubling every five days. Still more revealing is that two-thirds of the country’s ICU beds are in the private sector. It is hard not to conclude that “flattening the curve” reflects the immediate panic of the narrow class interests behind the initial lockdown, imposed – genuinely, I’m arguing – to protect “us”, as in everyone.

Keeping private sector beds protected for the privileged among “us” is part of this pattern. A variation of this same self-preservation “instinct” is not only keeping “them” away from “our” beds but – this time, with varying degrees of actual awareness – is just keeping “them” and their viruses away from “us”. Staying at home, as well as maintaining physical (or social distance), are physical impossibilities in overcrowded homes and the physically distant “townships” and slums, designed, let’s remind ourselves, to keep “them” locked up and separate long before apartheid was ever a word. It has long been known, after all, that a poor person’s sickness can affect the health of the rich.

Speaking on a recent webinar, the Indian writer, Arundhati Roy, spoke for much of the locked-down world when referring to “class apartheid”; the “erasure of the poor from the imagination of the rich,” a disconnection between the two worlds as graphic, again in her words, as “separating the flying classes from the working class”.

Who are these “flying classes” whose interests are primarily driving the lockdown presented as protecting all of us? More specifically, what are the contours of the inequality the rich have such difficulty acknowledging, but is now inadvertently exposed by lockdown? The top 10% of wealth holders (rather than income earners) of populations everywhere are undoubtedly the main members of the “WE”, in whose name everything is being done.

More specific standout numbers indicative of the scale of the inequality are:

  • For the world: The eight richest billionaires have as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population combined;
  • For South Africa: The top 10% of the population owns around 86% of all the country’s wealth; the wealthiest 3,500 people (0.01% of the adult population) own more than the most impoverished 32 million people; and, the most impoverished half of the South African adult population – some 17.7 million people – owe more than they own;
  • For Britain: The highest-paid 1% of British earners received nearly 17% of all the country’s income prior to coronavirus; while the top 0.1% received 8.1%; and
  • For the US: The bottom 50% of households owned 1.6% of the total wealth, with 70% of that wealth owned by the top 10%; since 2009, when the economic recovery began following the 2008 recession, some 95% of economic gains has gone to the top 1% of the population.

Before concluding, it must be asked: what is it about coronavirus that has induced governments to shut down their entire economies (except for health and other essential services)? These, after all, are the same governments that, for more than 40 years, have effectively ignored the considerably greater threat of climate change, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence they do not dispute.  More puzzling still is that the reason for their inaction is that effective climate change action would require an entirely unacceptable disruption of the economy. Yet, the cost of each national lockdown, even only the immediate ones, are almost incomprehensibly large and way beyond anything ever contemplated for addressing climate change. These questions must remain open for now, for suggesting answers is beyond the space constraints of this article.

What cannot be left unanswered is the impossible question frontline doctors are being forced to answer, because of the failure of governments to integrate the reality of inequality into any of the many forms of lockdown now to be found. Beds alone are illustrative. South Africa’s roughly 3,300 hospital beds in intensive care units (ICUs) in the public and private sector combined (recall, two thirds of these beds are in the private sector) are not going to be enough. Such are the anticipated and difficult triage decisions healthcare workers will have to make about allocating scarce beds and other essential equipment, that the South African Medical Association and other professional bodies have already issued guidelines on how to triage patients.

Not confronted by these guidelines, however, is that the shortage of both beds and equipment means there can be no properly rational way in which this can be done. Triage, in these circumstances, unavoidably means deciding who to let live and who to die. The same applies to the calls for the revitalisation of hospital ethics boards.  Yet, these calls for ethical answers to these challenges can be more than a comforting illusion, with the effect of not having to act on the fact of inequality. When meeting lockdown’s primary purpose of protecting the privileged means heavily penalising the poor, the only proper ethical response is to acknowledge the unethical consequences of the “Ways of Seeing” behind lockdown.  The brutal reality that needs facing is that the only real choice open to the poor is to decide how to die, or, more accurately, of what to die: coronavirus, hunger, lockdown-compounded gender-based violence, or TB, HIV-AIDS, cancer or any of the other diseases and conditions that have been de-prioritised to make way for coronavirus.

Recognising “Ways of Seeing” allows for the unlocking of its narrow class focus, thereby freeing the ubiquity of inequality to be seen as the starting point of any rational and ethical response to coronavirus. Saying this is not to pretend that there would then be any easy answers. Coronavirus doesn’t seem to allow this luxury. Not, at least, until such time as herd immunity is achieved and an effective vaccine discovered and made available with hitherto unprecedented urgency and on a mass scale.  But the unavoidable deaths, sufferings, and privations until that happens would not have been in vain. The unlocked post-coronavirus world must address inequality, not as an unavoidable fact of nature, or as a ‘nice to be without as long as it’s not now’, but as an urgent necessity. Fortuitously, addressing inequality is, in many ways, another form of addressing climate change. This is because the same economic system responsible for climate change also unavoidably creates the poverty behind the wealth that drives the need for profit-maximising, constant growth on a finite planet.

Seeing through the class distortions of “Ways of Seeing” allows us to hope that no future leader will again have to wait for a pandemic or some similar disaster before inequality is “revealed”. It additionally allows for the reasonable expectation that the human-made causes of inequality will be much wider understood.  To this end, it is sobering to be reminded that the just-passed 22 May marked the 56th anniversary of when former US President Lyndon B Johnson asked his country: “So, will you join in the battle to give every citizen the full equality which God enjoins and the law requires, whatever his belief, or race, or the color of his skin? Will you join in the battle to give every citizen an escape from the crushing weight of poverty?”  Johnson would have good cause to weep at the answer given him by his country of today. But to see this as a failure of a particular country is a mistake. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if inequality was confined to the US alone! As we have had occasion to see, inequality is a pandemic with a very long history.

“This changes everything”, said Naomi Klein in her book, “Capitalism vs the Climate”. The book helped to promote that idea of system change, not climate change. Coronavirus is but a newer reminder of that same need.  President Johnson would doubtlessly have been aghast to know that, in his (foredoomed) appeal for “an escape from the crushing weight of poverty”, he could well have quoted Karl Marx. Writing, appropriately as it happens, in a US newspaper of 1859, Marx noted: “There must be something rotten in the very core of a social system which increases its wealth without diminishing its misery.” 

Reposted with permission from

* Alternative Development and Information Centre, Cape Town